Jessica Bridge knows nearly everybody. And just about everybody in Burlington seems to know her. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of making Bridge’s acquaintance, sit tight. At some point, someone will recommend her as a realtor when you’re looking to buy a house. Or she’ll sell your friend a condo. Or maybe she’ll mix you a drink at her Church Street bar.
People around Burlington know Bridge as owner of the 1/2 Lounge. But with her new company, Element Real Estate, which she started in June with business partner Dan Cypress, Bridge is proving herself in a new arena. And she’s selling houses like a maniac. Don’t try to tell her it’s a tough time for real estate. She can barely keep ahead of all the business coming her way.
To say Bridge is driven would be a gross understatement. Before she hit double digits, she was babysitting toddlers in her Monroe, N.J., neighborhood. During college in Las Vegas, she ran a coffee shop, then a brewpub. By 22, she was in charge of customer relations for a luxury-property-management company in Park City, Utah.
Four years later, Bridge and a partner bought the 1/2 Lounge and turned it into an upscale speakeasy. Add a tattoo studio and a beverage catering company, and a picture of Bridge starts to emerge — as an ambitious people pleaser with a knack for business and a devotion to her job(s) that borders on the fanatical.
The connections she’s made in these various venues are a boon in her new profession. Perhaps more than any other business, real estate relies on word of mouth. All the advertisements in the world can’t beat an enthusiastic referral from a trusted friend.
And Bridge has a lot of those. The 33-year-old is one of those rare individuals with the uncanny ability to make those around her feel good about themselves. Bridge brings new people into her circle with a wink, a heartfelt compliment, a light touch on the arm, whether or not she wants to sell them something. Generally, those people stick around.
If she does sell them something, it’s a bonus. In general, says her mentor in the business, Bill Desautels of RE/MAX North Professionals, Bridge does more business in two months than an average realtor does in a year. Desautels credits her early success to her focus. “She knows what she wants. She has a clear vision,” he says.
Practically, that vision is centered on the Greater Burlington housing market, where Bridge and her partner Cypress have already staked a desirable claim. One reason the pair got into the business, says Cypress, was that they both knew so many people who would be wanting to buy in Chittenden County in the future. It seemed like a logical step.
Initially, Bridge says, the sales component of real estate turned her off. She didn’t want people to assume she would try to push property on them just because she was a realtor. “I had a picture that sales equaled not caring,” she says, her New Jersey accent sneaking out. “But I sleep well at night for a reason.”
Bridge has crafted her nascent real estate business around trying to understand what makes people happy. “It makes me feel good to make other people feel good,” she says. Anticipating people’s wants and needs is a skill she’s fostered over her many years in the service industry, where success is directly related to customer satisfaction.
Bridge grew up about an hour outside New York City. Coming from a solidly working-class family that valued initiative and hard work, she got a job as soon as she was able. As a teen, she toiled in restaurants and slogged it out on farms. “I wanted to be independent,” Bridge says. “I didn’t want to have to ask my parents for anything.”
Her college career began at Rutgers, where she intended to major in Russian. But, after a chance encounter with the university’s dean of admissions, whom she told of her plans to own her own restaurant one day, Bridge changed course entirely. She enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and studied hospitality management. The major suited her personality. “I just love, love, love people,” she says. “Restaurants were the best way to be around people and be social.”
Las Vegas fed Bridge in other ways. The landscape beyond the glittery city — jagged peaks rising from a stark desert — spoke to her, she recalls. She was enticed by its sheer extremity — not for the first time, or the last. Bridge frankly acknowledges her attraction to the extreme. Her 14 tattoos, her stint as a vegan and her time studying Brazilian martial arts stand as evidence.
When Bridge followed her then-boyfriend to Burlington after four years in Park City, she couldn’t find a job. For someone used to working all the time, unemployment was a killer, she recalls. She spent her days throwing a tennis ball for her dog.
After a couple of months of searching, Bridge met the owner of Red Square, who happened to need a temporary bar manager. It was serendipity. Bridge took the job, which she calls “complete and total immersion into Burlington nightlife.”
Not long after, an opportunity arose to buy the assets of the 1/2 Lounge next door. With business partner Tyre Duvernay, with whom she also co-owns the tattoo studio Aartistic Inc., Bridge snatched up the property and recast it as a different type of bar. “We had in mind a place for adults. Nobody was doing it,” Bridge says. “No one was making organic cocktails. No one had a cheese menu.”
Word spread that the tiny slip of a watering hole was the place to go for the edgy, creative crowd. Business exploded because of word of mouth — though Bridge claims she still runs into people who’ve never heard of the place. And she kept making new connections.
A positive experience with a realtor left Bridge thinking about leaving the hospitality business and entering the home-selling fray. “Real estate is intellectually stimulating, and I needed a new challenge,” she says. Bridge also saw real estate as a potential route to financial security — which, for her, means the ability to take care of her parents or her brother if they need it.
Most people who know Bridge say they’ve been friends with her for years, though they’re not quite sure how they met. It’s as if they’ve just always known her, they say. Cypress is one of those people.
When the pair learned they both harbored a desire to get into real estate, it only made sense that they’d do it together. After spending time on a team at RE/MAX North under the tutelage of Matt Hurlburt, Bridge and Cypress struck out on their own.
Cypress’ financial background mixed well with Bridge’s experience in customer service. He sees their differences as strengths. “I’m more market driven, and she’s much better at helping people see space,” he says. “She’s very passionate and intense in a good way.” Their complementary personalities have produced sales figures that are “pretty amazing,” Cypress adds. In the past two and a half months, the pair’s business has doubled, and February was their busiest month yet.
“Jess has the unique ability to read people’s personality and match them with a property,” says Becky Beers, a treasury relationship manager at KeyBank, who went to Bridge a year ago for help finding a house. She and her fiancé, Ewen Syme, had known Bridge for years. After getting a sense of what each of them wanted in a home, Bridge seemed to know intuitively what would work, Beers says. Though they initially said they didn’t want to live in the New North End, she showed them a property in that part of Burlington that offered everything they were looking for. They loved it.
An average workday for Bridge starts at 7 a.m. with a quick check of email and ends somewhere between 6 and 11 p.m., depending on what she has going on at the 1/2, her labor of love. Despite this workaholic existence, Bridge looks anything but haggard or rundown. To the contrary, she has an understated glamour about her. Her menswear-inspired wardrobe, complete with neckties, is crisp and pressed, and her chestnut eyes are bright and engaged.
While her diet consists largely of takeout food, she manages to maintain an enviably trim physique and creamy complexion. She wears her luxuriant, mahogany-colored hair long, with thick bangs that she often pushes to the side when she speaks. Bridge jokes that her hair hides her ever-present Bluetooth, which makes it look as though she’s always talking to herself.
But she’s listening, too. At a recent condo showing, Bridge demonstrated her knack for understanding her buyers’ tastes. The first property, a one-bedroom unit in a historic Victorian building, had a disjointed layout, textured wallpaper and few right angles to be found. Bridge knew the buyer had lived in mostly modern buildings and might find the space cumbersome. She suggested a more conventional unit in a building down the street — a “dope space,” she called it — might work better. She was right. The buyer perked up when she saw the sleek kitchen and new hardwood flooring.
With a schedule that leaves little time for leisure, Bridge admits balance isn’t one of her strong suits. But when it comes to her clients, “If you want me, I’m committed,” she says. Last year she scheduled an open house for a client on Halloween and spent the evening in the South End home passing out candy to trick-or-treaters. The house sold just days after it was listed.
“This might sound hokey,” Bridge said, “but what I really love doing is making people happy.”
As Seven Days was planning this issue, a relic from the boom times turned up in our office — the real estate issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine from March 6, 2006. One of our editors found it in a folder of story ideas. Its 200 colorful pages include numerous ads for luxury homes and condos, and even a full-page spread offering “discount mortgages.” How times have changed. Flipping through it four years later — in the wake of the mortgage-default crisis and recession — we can’t help wondering which of the developments noted in the Times has gone belly up; the billionaire real estate tycoon it profiled is currently in bankruptcy court and might go to jail.
Vermont hasn’t escaped this catastrophe unscathed, but the state hasn’t been hit as hard as most. Vermont has the lowest rate of past-due mortgages in New England, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s National Delinquency Survey for the fourth quarter of 2009; the state ranks 46th nationwide. In fact, it turns out the recession might have a silver lining for some area homebuyers. Economist Art Woolf reported last week that, according to his calculations, housing in Vermont was more affordable last year than at any time since 2003. “This is good news,” he says, “for households with good credit who have saved up for a down payment.”
Many of those households seem to be getting the message — the starter-home market is pretty tight, especially in Chittenden County. Lauren Ober reports that the first-time homebuyer tax credit may be spurring sales in that category. On the other hand, Vermont’s luxury market isn’t moving very quickly, as Andy Bromage notes in his story about a $7.9 million island for sale off the coast of Charlotte.
Buying or selling a house might be easier if you work with a spirited real estate agent/bar owner/tattoo biz proprietor like Jessica Bridge. Lauren Ober describes why the 33-year-old Burlington agent has been so busy lately.
But real estate isn’t just about the bucks — Paula Routly contributes an essay about the emotional appeal of her new house . And Ken Picard talks with a real estate lawyer who explains what you can learn about people from the deeds to their houses. Of course, no real estate issue would be complete without tantalizing photos of houses — see the food section for for Suzanne Podhaizer’s tour of some of Vermont’s most decadent private kitchens.
Downsizing has its appeal, too, as Eva Sollberger’s new “Stuck in Vermont” video illustrates. She re-interviews Peter King, the “Tiny House” builder she first profiled in November 2008. That video has been viewed more than 73,000 times on YouTube, and sparked a flurry of interest in King’s gospel of simplicity and freedom from mortgage debt. Since then, he’s built 11 tiny houses, nine of them in Vermont. In this week’s video, King introduces a Monkton couple who are selling their 2400-square-foot home and moving into a 400-square-foot structure.
— Cathy Resmer